Neil Shenvi - Apologetics

Why should we seek the truth?

This essay is taken from the rough draft of what will hopefully be chapter 2 in an apologetics book I am writing.

In a book like this, you might expect me to dive right into arguments to defend God's existence. After all, I've just made it very clear that historic Christianity makes objective claims to truth. Christians do not merely have sincere beliefs about God. They claim that these beliefs correspond to reality. But before considering any of the evidence, we need to ask an even more fundamentally important question, one that is often ignored by Christians and non-Christians alike: why should we seek the truth? If you look on the Internet or read the latest books by authors like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, you'll see atheism presented as the sole defender of truth in opposition to religion, the champion of dogma, ignorance and superstition. For example, Richard Dawkins' website proclaims itself to be `An oasis of clear-thinking' Sam Harris' foundation, The Reason Project is dedicated to `encourage[ing] critical thinking and erod[ing] the influence of dogmatism, superstition, and bigotry in our world.' Obviously, the Neoatheists proudly stake out their position as `truth-seekers' in defiance of the perceived close-mindedness and parochialism of religion.

Although I could not be farther from the views of the Neoatheists in many respects, there is something about their ideas that strikes me as profoundly right. Almost every human being has an innate love for truth. We crave truth. We yearn for it and seek it like plants seek the sunlight. In fact, even when we expect that the truth may be painful, we seek it still or are ashamed at our hesitation. One of the most noble qualities of traditional atheists like Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, or Bertrand Russell was that they perceived a universe without God to be a universe without meaning, love, or purpose, an unending emptiness of existential horror. Yet they still chose what they perceived to be the terrible truth. The modern atheists tend to want to have their cake and eat it: they believe that humans can thrive and even rejoice in a universe devoid of transcendent meaning. Whether they are right or wrong, we will leave to later chapters. But the Neoatheists will never possess the tragic heroism of the man who refuses to surrender his pursuit of truth even at the expense of his own happiness, hope, and sanity. Such is the human hunger for truth.

What then is the problem? It is sometimes difficult to notice, so I will initially pose it in the form of an illustration. Imagine that as you walk through a city park you see a man who is gesticulating wildly to a small crowd. Curious, you veer closer and hear him giving an impassioned speech. `There is nothing more important than what I am proposing. That's why you should all sign up to come with me. It will take a tremendous amount of training. You can't start too soon.' `What's he talking about?' you whisper to a friend in the crowd. `He's leading an expedition to the South Pole,' your friend whispers back. `Why?' you ask, but the man overhears you. `Why? Why?' he asks incredulously, his voice rising. `Because somewhere near the South Pole, there is a perfectly spherical 1-pound piece of ice. I'm going to find it and bring it back with me.' He immediately launches into a very technical and remarkably thoughtful description of the equipment he will need. `Wait,' you interrupt, `is there some reason that you are looking for this particular block of ice? What if we die on this expedition? What if it is incredibly costly and painful? Is there something intrinsically good about this block of ice? Are we morally obligated to look for it, regardless of the cost to ourselves?' `What!' He looks completely astonished. `Are you telling me you don't want to seek out my 1-pound piece of spherical ice? Unbelievable! I had just assumed everyone would want to follow me.' And with that, he walks away.

Such an encounter would be astonishing. No one in his right mind would act the way this man did. He has assumed -without any justification- what is absolutely crucial to his entire enterprise: that his expedition is good and that people should engage in it. Of course, when it comes to spherical pieces of ice, we immediately realize that there is nothing intrinsically good or morally obligatory about seeking them at the South Pole or anywhere else. But isn't it possible to make this same observation about a different enterprise? What if he were not seeking a block of ice, but were instead seeking the truth? Wouldn't the same questions still apply? Is it objectively good to seek the truth? Are we morally obligated to seek the truth? If you are reading this book, presumably you are seeking to know whether God actually exists. You want to know whether Christianity is actually true. But why? What if the actual existence of God doesn't help you meet your goals? What if the truth of Christianity turns out to be unpleasant, difficult, and demanding? Why not put this book down immediately, let sleeping gods lie, and turn on the television until you've forgotten the contents of these first two chapters and preferably the table of contents as well? Why not go off and live in a fantasy world of leprechauns and unicorns? Something about living such a delusion repels us at the deepest level of our being. We do not want to live a lie. We want the truth. As I said earlier, we crave it, even if it turns out to be unpleasant. My contention is that we crave the truth and appreciate it and seek it because we know it is intrinsically good. We pursue the truth because we know that it is our moral obligation as human beings created in the image of a truth-loving God. Is this a necessary conclusion? Is the pursuit of truth objectively good? And can the pursuit of truth only be objectively good if God exists? Perhaps we can find a basis for the intrinsic goodness truth-seeking in the absence of God. Let's explore this possibility.

The difficulty for atheism

The question of the basis for objective morality in the absence of God is one that has plagued philosophers for centuries. As a consequence of the intractability of this problem, a sizable minority of modern philosophers simply deny that objective moral values and duties exist. On the other hand, other atheist philosophers affirm that objective moral values and duties exist but adopt various strategies to explain their existence in the absence of God. Let's consider both of these approaches below.

One alternative for the atheist is to deny that objective moral values and duties exist. By `objective', I mean moral values and duties which are true and binding independent of what humans believe about them. If moral values are objective, then they are factual propositions like any other factual statement: 'compassion is good' and 'rape is evil' are true statements whether or not the majority of human beings agree with it. In contrast, a moral relativist says that all moral statements like 'compassion is good' or 'rape is evil' are relative to the individual or culture. Another possibility is that moral statements are ultimately statements of preference ('I like compassion') or emotive utterances ('Boo, rape!'), not propositional truths.

This position is fully compatible with atheism. However, it commits us to a very uncomfortable position with respect to the original question. A moral relativist must answer the question: `Is truth-seeking objectively good or obligatory?' with a resounding 'No'. After all, nothing is objectively good or obligatory; it's all ultimately a matter of preference, either my own or that of society. The difficulty with this answer is three-fold.

First, it is extremely counter-intuitive. As I said, I think it is undeniable that as human beings we crave the truth. We may be tempted to embrace comforting falsehoods. But there is something that always tugs us in the other direction. We feel that it is wrong and even sub-human to embrace lies and to bury our heads in the sand. Even if everyone in society were convinced that the earth were flat, we intuitively feel that we would be duty-bound to seek the truth of the matter, to resist and to correct their error if necessary. But why? Is this intuition simply wrong or is it an indication that, on a deep level, we do recognize that the truth is intrinsically good and worthy of being sought for its own sake?

Second, if we do not hold that truth-seeking is intrinsically good or obligatory, then why do we not spend more time considering the personal benefits of every proposition rather than its truth value? For instance, when I say 'Christianity is true' I doubt that anyone's first thought is: `Well, I don't really care about its truth per se. My real questions are: will it meet my needs? Will it help me achieve my goals? Will it help me lose weight, make more money, and become a better salsa dancer?' Yet if truth-seeking is not intrinsically valuable, then truth-seeking can only have value insofar as it helps us meet our personal goals. If a person is going to consistently affirm that truth-seeking is not intrinsically good or obligatory, then they need to begin to evaluate every truth-claim not on the basis of its truth or falsehood but on the basis of its implications for our personal comfort.

Third, this position explicitly contradicts the foundational tenets of free-thought and the modern atheist movement. As I've pointed out, one of the most legitimately attractive features of atheism is that most atheists claim to be on a quest for truth. To me, it seems completely inconsistent to trumpet the virtues of free-thought as an honest, disinterested search for truth and to then deny that searching for the truth is in any way intrinsically good. The proselytization efforts of the Neoatheists are also inconsistent with the claim that truth-seeking is not intrinsically good. On what basis do free-thinkers urge others to seek the truth or to abandon dogma and prejudice? If truth-seeking is not intrinsically good, then there is no qualitative difference between the admonition to `Seek the truth' and the admonition to `eat more of my favorite vegetable' or 'cheer for my favorite sports team.' In all three statements, we are merely trying to impose our personal preferences - for truth, or vegetables, or the Red Sox - on others.

If the moral relativist's position is problematic, especially for the free-thinker who wants to hold onto truth-seeking as an intrinsically good and valuable pursuit, then the only other alternative is moral realism: the idea that there are objective moral values and obligations. Here, the atheist runs into the question of grounding: what is the basis for these objective moral values and obligations? For instance, when I say that there is a chair in my kitchen, this proposition is grounded in the physical reality of the external universe: there is actually a chair in my kitchen. There is some element of reality to which my statement corresponds, regardless of what other people believe. So to what element of reality do statements like 'Compassion is good' or 'Rape is evil' correspond? Atheists have offered a plethora of answers, but all of them face one insurmountable obstacle: what do we do when our pursuit of truth is irreconcilably opposed to our pursuit of other legitimately good things? For instance, one major class of atheistic ethics is utilitarianism, the idea that what is 'good' is what maximizes the well-being of the maximal number of people. There are several major problems with this as an ethical theory, as we'll discuss further in Chapter 3, but for now we need only consider that there is no guarantee that what maximizes the well-being of the maximal number of people will also be consistent with truth-seeking. In fact, we can think of many examples where truth-seeking is clearly opposed to well-being.

Would it really increase the well-being of a young mother dying of dysentery to know the truth that her tiny daughter has just died of the disease as well, instead of believing the falsehood that she is safe and happy? Would it really increase the well-being of a philanthropist to know the truth that all of his efforts to eradicate cholera from a village in Africa will be rendered useless by an epidemic of typhoid fever? On a larger scale, belief in God and an afterlife undoubtedly increases the well-being of billions of people around the world. Studies routinely show that the most religious live longer, happier, and more generous lives than the least religious. Then on what basis do we claim that disproving the idea of God's existence is good even if atheism happens to be true? In all of these cases, not only is truth-seeking opposed to what promotes well-being, but the utilitarian appears to have a moral obligation to promote the acceptance of false beliefs.

The same problem is encountered in all atheistic moral theories. What is good and what is true may be compatible. But they may be diametrically opposed. If that's the case, then we are forced to conclude that atheism provides no grounds for claiming that truth-seeking is intrinsically good or morally obligatory. Truth-seeking may be good insofar as it promotes human well-being or social stability. But as soon as truth-seeking threatens whatever I ultimately define as `good', then I am morally obligated to discard truth-seeking and seek lies. As an atheist, we have to always be asking the question: am I morally obligated to seek or promote the truth in this case? Or am I morally obligated to avoid the truth for the sake of promoting human flourishing, social stability, or personal happiness? What is true and what is good may occasionally coincide in a universe without God. But in a world filled with pain, especially one in which there is no hope of ultimate divine restoration and redemption, they will often be enemies.

The answer from theism

If atheism faces insurmountable problems in supporting the claim that truth-seeking is objectively good, is there any reason to think that theism fares better? It depends on which kind of god we think exists. After all, we could believe in a God who is not a truth-loving God or who does not command humans to seek and believe the truth. Such a God would furnish no basis for saying that truth was intrinsically good. However, the biblical God is clearly a truth-loving God. On the biblical view, the goodness of truth is grounded in God's character. We see this throughout the Bible, most prominently in the Psalms and Proverbs where wisdom, truth, and knowledge are extolled as great goods. Similarly, repeated prohibitions against false testimony and lying reiterate the fact that God is a God who loves truth, a God who 'cannot lie'. Perhaps the most startling statement on this subject is the description of those who reject God as those who `fail to love the truth and so be saved' (2 Thess. 2:10). Far from seeing faith in opposition to truth, the Bible sees truth as the very basis for salvation.

But does the Christian view of truth answer the question of truth's compatibility with other good things: human well-being, justice, compassion? Yes. In fact, I don't think that it is possible to reconcile truth and all other goods unless God exists. We rightly recognize that truth and happiness are often in extreme tension in this world. Do I seek to know the truth about corrupt practices at my workplace if it means I may have to resign or even to testify against my employer? Do I ask those I trust to tell me the truth about my own shortcomings, character flaws and sins? Do I blind myself to the realities of misery, poverty, and suffering all over the world so that I can enjoy my safe, comfortable suburban lifestyle? There is a real tension in all of these cases between truth and happiness and it is a tension that cannot be resolved in this life. But if Christianity is true, then it will be resolved in eternity. If Christianity is true, then I can risk everything on the truth. I don't need to fear losing my career to do what is right, because my security is found not in my career but in God's promises. I can seek to know the truth about myself because the development of my character is more important than my personal comfort. I can face the terrible realities of this life, because my happiness is ultimately found in God. There is no ultimate tension between truth and happiness only because God will put all things right in the end. If Christianity is true, then to seek the truth is to seek what will make us eternal happy and to urge others to seek the truth is to urge them to seek eternal happiness as well.

So we are left with an extremely interesting paradox. The atheist claims that his atheism is the result of diligent, whole-hearted, uncompromising pursuit of truth and that to embrace religion is to embrace a delusion. Yet the atheist can offer no grounds for saying that truth-seeking is objectively good. If he is a moral relativist, then nothing is objectively good. If he is a moral realist, then truth might occasionally be aligned with what is good, and other times might be opposed to it. In contrast, a Christian can consistently seek the truth because it is intrinsically good. Because God believes only truth and loves truth, truth-seeking is a reflection of God's character. Truth-seeking is not merely a matter of our personal preference, less still is truth a means to some other end. It is an end unto itself. The attitude of Christianity towards the truth is perhaps best summarized by Jesus own words: 'If you hold to my teaching, then you are truly my disciples. Then you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.'

To Christians who are reading this essay, I would like to remind you that Christianity claims that truth is objectively good. Since that is the case, we need to examine our own lives. Are we really living as if truth is objectively good? Do we believe that Christianity is not only existentially fulfilling but objectively true? And do we recognize that pursuit of the truth is a means to honor a God who commands us to seek it and to love him with all our minds?

To atheists who are reading this essay, I would like to challenge you to examine the consistency of your own beliefs. If you recognize the validity of the arguments in this essay, then you must choose to abandon one of two premises: either atheism is false or truth-seeking is not objectively good and morally obligatory. Let's consider the latter alternative. If truth-seeking is not objectively good and morally obligatory, do you recognize that you have no basis to urge others to seek it? You may personally choose to seek truth. But that choice is just a personal preference, like your taste in ice cream or your preference for bluegrass music. To censure others for their dogmatism, their close-mindedness, their intellectual dishonesty is to assert that they are obligated to be open-minded. But this is not possible if atheism is true. Furthermore, you need to recognize that there is nothing intrinsically good about truth. You can urge truth-seeking on others for purely pragmatic reasons ('It will benefit society', 'It will make you happier', 'It will help you achieve your goals'). But you cannot tell them that truth is intrinsically good, independent of whether it makes us or others happy.

But there is another option. Why not reconsider the first premise: is atheism actually true? Perhaps our thirst for truth and our recognition that it is intrinsically good is pointing us to some source of truth beyond ourselves. And if Christianity is true, then truth is found not merely as an abstract entity but is a person who is Himself the way, the truth and the life.

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If anyone reading this essay has questions about it or about Christianity in general, feel free to e-mail me at Neil -AT- I also highly recommend the book The Reason for God by Tim Keller and would be happy to send you a copy for free if you email me your mailing address.

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